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Six Sips of Strychnine

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When Martha was a child, spring was her very favorite time of year. It was a breath of fresh air after the bitter cold of winter, and the world seemed just a bit sweeter all full of sunshine and dewdrops. The graves out in the cemetery were always so lonely during the winter; even the dearly departed who still had family to leave flowers in the snow were largely neglected during the coldest months of the year.

But spring, ah, spring. Spring was when the dearly departed could make their own flowers. She and Abby liked to wander the cemetery then, hands linked between them and baskets at their sides, to gather up the fresh elderberry blossoms that grew up between graves. Some of Martha's very favorite memories were of those springtime picnics.

But one day, instead of getting to try their mother's honey crumble, fate had a very different dessert in mind for them. They'd been huddled together on the lawn of one of their favorite weathered old stones, blind to the way grave dirt was seeping into their pinafores, when their father's voice rang out through the cemetery.

"Abby? Martha? Come inside for a moment."

Martha looked at Abby, and her dark eyes had gone round and solemn. Neither of them quite knew what to make of their father. They both loved him, of course they loved him, but the two of them had been getting a little older lately, and -- well, Abby had asked her a few weeks ago, in a hushed whisper across shared pillows, whether she thought that maybe their father was just a bit queer. None of the other children had fathers who gathered up cats and rats and corpses and disappeared into the upstairs laboratory with them. None of the other children even had laboratories. But then again, none of the other children had doctors for fathers, either. And his work was so very important.

Martha reached for Abby's hand and gave it a little squeeze. "We should go see what Father wants," she said, and she brushed imaginary grass stains from her dress. It wouldn't do to look a mess in front of him.

Abby nodded, but she didn't say anything. Martha could feel the way her fingers trembled in her grasp.

Inside, their father was waiting for them at the top of the steps. He was standing there in the doorway to the laboratory, and Martha swallowed. "What is it, Father?" she asked.

"Come up here, darlings. Father has a very important experiment he must do."

His tone brooked no argument, and Abby's hand tightened in hers as they slowly climbed the stairs. Martha hoped very much that there'd be no mess on his workbench today. Last time had been just ghastly.

Thankfully, her father's desk was cleared of everything but a few strange little jars. Martha squinted at them, but the words on the labels were far too difficult for her to make out at her age, and she knew Abby was no better. "What are those, Father?" she asked.

He picked up the bottle closest to them and rolled it in his fingers. "These are very dangerous poisons, my dear. You and Abby must never touch them without permission," he said. And then he uncorked it. "Today you'll be trying one."

Martha bit at her bottom lip. "But you said they're very dangerous..."

"Oh, they are," her father said, and he tapped the label. "This is strychnine. One tablespoon of this and a grown man would go down like a load of bricks."

Oh dear. If it could kill grown men so easily, Martha wasn't sure she wanted to know what it could do to girls so small as them. "But..."

Her father finally noticed the tense hunch to Martha's shoulders, and Abby's fine trembling. "But don't worry, darlings. I won't be giving you nearly that much. You see, a very long time ago, in a kingdom far away, there was a king named Mithridates VI. His mother was very worried that he'd be poisoned, so she started feeding him poisons, bit by bit, until he built up an tolerance to them. They say by the time he was an adult, there was no poison that could hurt him," he said.

Next to her, Abby swallowed. "Was his mother right to be scared he'd be poisoned?" she asked, and Martha was wondering the same thing. It seemed like a very extreme solution.

"Oh yes," their father said. "After all, she'd poisoned Mithridates V."

Martha looked at her father, and she thought about all the men who had walked into their house hale and hearty and had walked out pale and shaking. She thought about the police chief who'd come to tea just last week, and the way he'd told her she should be proud to have such a clever father who was such a help to the police during poisoning investigations. She thought about dear old Mrs. Mithridates, who'd known exactly how to protect her son -- and why.

"You're going to do that to us, Father, aren't you?" she asked.

"No, my dear," he said, and pulled a very small spoon from his desk drawer. "I'm going to do this for you."

He used the very small spoon to take a very small scoop of very fine powder. "Which of you would like to go first?"

* * *

It was a few years later, and they were just sitting down to tea, when they received their first test.

"I'm so glad you could join us today, Father," Abby said, adjusting her skirts as she sat forward in her chair.

"Oh yes, Father," Martha agreed. "And it was so kind to help us bring the trays from the kitchen."

Their father didn't often join them for afternoon tea anymore. He was so very busy, and was often on the cusp of some radical new invention. He was close, he kept saying, so close to something extraordinary. Well. Martha didn't know much about that, but she knew that he always let the tea that she and Abby took to him grow ice cold before he remembered to drink it, and she knew that he'd been looking so old lately. He'd never looked old to her before.

But today he was holding a slice of cake instead of a flask, and the crinkles around his eyes made him look kind instead of tired. "And I've prepared a surprise for you two girls, too," he said.

"A surprise? I do love surprises!" Abby said.

"Yes," he said, and his smile widened. "I've hidden it inside something on this tray."

Martha looked down at the very normal looking tea set, and then looked up at her sister. What on earth could it be? Everything looked to be in order.

Their father took a bite of his cake and then sat back in his chair. "The two of you will need to taste everything, I daresay, if you want to find it."

Taste? But she'd tasted everything before she'd put it on the tray. It would have been terrible if she'd misplaced the salt for sugar again. They looked so alike, and even back when their dear mother had been alive to teach her the cooking basics, she'd mistaken them a few times. Now that she was practicing all alone, it was much harder. Abby wasn't old enough to use the oven by herself yet. Usually Martha didn't mind doing all that herself -- she did so enjoy making things, after all -- but it was still a bit stressful to make tea for discerning guests instead of just her siblings.

Martha took a hesitant taste of the cake she'd cut for herself. It tasted fine, just as jammy and delicious as she'd hoped it would be. Across from her, Abby poured the milk to gentle her tea, then took a sip. A faint look of distaste crossed her face, but it was puzzled, like she couldn't quite put her finger on it. "Is this new milk, Martha?"

"Quite new," she said. "It came just this morning." She took a sip of her own tea, and there it was, clear as anything. "Oh!"

"Is something wrong?" her father asked, and the smile was widening now, was threatening to spill off the sides of his face.

She looked at her father. "You've put strychnine in this, haven't you, Father?" she asked, and tried not to sound too disapproving. Strychnine had such a foul, bitter taste. It wasn't nice at all in tea. And the cheek of slipping it in while the two of them had been busy setting the silverware!

"In what?" he asked, and his fingers drummed a little excitedly on the armrest of his chair.

Martha tilted her head to the side just slightly as she thought. "In the milk, I should think," she said. "Strychnine would have such an odor if you put it straight into the hot tea!"

"Very good!" her father said, and he was barely able to get his plate down on the table before he was rubbing his hands together gleefully. "Simply astonishing!"

Martha felt the warm glow of pride in her stomach, and she tried to calm it a little. A bit of self-satisfaction was healthy, her mother had always said, but pride was a sin. Besides, Abby was starting to look very cross. "I tasted it, too, father!" she said.

"So you did, my girl, so you did," he said, and he looked positively elated. "You both did very well. I think we might even get to start the next step far sooner than I had ever hoped."

Martha and Abby exchanged glances again, this time a little more wary. "The next step, Father?" Martha ventured.

"Why, cyanide, of course," he said, and started to cut himself a new slice of cake.

"Cyanide?" Abby asked, a little dismally. She'd had such stomach cramps when they'd first started on the strychnine, Martha remembered. She would have to make her something nice to make up for this.

Their father, though, seemed not to notice her tone. "Of course cyanide," he said. "It wouldn't do at all to study the long term effects of just strychnine. And anyway, you girls need to be well-grounded. I've always been in favor of female education." He took a little sip of his tea -- sans milk, Martha noticed.

"Yes, Father," Abby said, looking down into her pale tea. "Of course."

Martha took another sip of her tea, and tried not to wince at the bitterness of it. She reached for the sugar bowl to make the flavor a bit more palatable, and she thought of the lovely cake she'd make to surprise Abby. After all, there was nothing a little sweetness couldn't fix.

* * *

It wasn't until the two of them were teenagers, gawky and unsteady and lovely in turn, that they were tested again. And this time, this time it was very different.

It was the first Halloween of the new century and she and Abby had been up all night making sweets for all the neighborhood children, and as Martha put the finishing touches on the little orange-iced cakes, Abby was carving out the jack-o-lantern. She was basing it on the cold gentleman that their father had brought home the previous evening, Martha thought. It had that same sort of grin.

"I do hope the children like these cookies, Abby," she said.

Abby looked up at her, and really, no one else looked half so charming with a carving knife in their hand. "But of course they will, Martha dear! Your spice cookies were a hit with the whole congregation last Sunday!"

"Oh, well..." she murmured, and didn't bother to hide how pleased she was to hear the praise. Abby always understood.

"And your toffee spiders look just delightful!" Abby said, gesturing towards the platter with the point of her knife.

Martha was glad to hear it. She'd spent half the evening drawing out their legs before the toffee cooled, and she still had the scorched fingertips to prove it. She smiled. "Would you like to try one? There should be more than enough."

Abby's eyes lit up. "Oh, I would!" she said, and she placed her knife to the side and wiped her hands on her apron.

Martha carefully slid one of the spiders from its platter and into Abby's cupped hands. "There we are."

And it was usually such fun to watch Abby try her creations, it really was. She usually made the best faces. But this time, instead of her eyes sliding rapturously shut, a little frown tugged at her lips. "Martha, I don't think that's a very good joke," she said, and her eyes had gone unusually serious.

Martha frowned. "Whatever do you mean, dear?" she asked. Halloween was for tricks, but her toffee recipe was no joke.

Abby was pulling out her handkerchief now and was -- oh no, she was spitting her toffee out into it. "You know very well that the neighborhood children can't hold their poison," she said, a little severely. "And strychnine is far too strong for a holiday."

"Strychnine!" Martha said, and her mouth hung open just a bit. "Why, I didn't put any strychnine in the toffee!"

Abby's lips twisted. "I hate to have to disagree with you, Martha, but I am quite sure there's strychnine in this toffee. Perhaps you were just a bit tired when you were making them last night? You were up so very late and strychnine does have a way of looking like sugar if you're not paying close attention!" she said.

"I always pay close attention," Martha said, and tried not to sound too injured. Just because she'd mixed up the salt and the sugar a few times when they were younger, that didn't mean that she'd be so careless as to misplace the strychnine! It was far too bitter for casual baking.

Abby was quiet for a moment. Then, "Martha, dear, do you remember how Father came down for a midnight snack last night?"

"You don't mean..." But now that Abby mentioned it, she did remember their father poking around in the kitchen while she was working. It wasn't unusual for him to keep strange hours, so she hadn't thought much of it. But maybe... "Oh, but he wouldn't!"

Abby tsked and shook her head. "Oh, Father can be naughty sometimes," she murmured.

Martha sighed and looked over the many, many platters she'd prepared. "Well, that won't do at all. Strychnine is all well and good when you want a little kick, but this much will make the children sick," she said. A candy stomachache was a Halloween tradition, but a mortal one just seemed to be taking things too far.

"Yes," Abby agreed. "All things in moderation."

"I suppose we had better try all the rest of them and see where else Father has shown mischief," Martha said. And what a terrible Halloween trick! She'd been up all night baking. If Father wanted special candies, he should have just requested them instead of fooling with the batches she'd already made. It simply wasn't right to salt an entire pot of soup instead of your own bowl.

* * *

In the end, they found strychnine in the toffee spiders and the caramel apples, and a hint of arsenic in the cider. Martha set them aside in the pantry -- their father was just going to have to wait for his treats. Halloween was for the children, after all.

A few hours later, after the children had come and gone and the moon was high over the cemetery, their father came down from his workroom.

"Hello, Father," Abby said, and she set down the book she'd been reading.

Martha nodded. "Happy Halloween."

"It is, isn't it?" he said, and his smile had gone slightly wide and slightly sinister, and it made Martha's heart ache a little at the sweetness of it. "I trust the trick-or-treating went well?"

"It did," Martha said slowly.

"No thanks to you," Abby interrupted, and my! She was just like a tiger, or that ferocious little dog that she'd seen the new parson walking a few evenings ago. She was growing up to have fire in her, wasn't she?

Their father's smile dimmed, just a bit. "Oh?" he asked.

Martha looked at her sister, and somehow the straightness of her back gave her a little bit of courage. "Yes," she said. "It was very rude to change my recipe without asking, Father."

"But children like a bit of spice to their candy nowadays, don't they?" he asked. "You brought home those cinnamon drops just last week."

"Oh, come now, Father," Martha said, and wasn't it terrible to sound so cross with one's father? But really, it had been such a mean trick. "You know the children in this neighborhood have no stomach for arsenic! They would have gotten sick, and what a fine holiday that would have been!"

"Would they have? Or would they have become stronger, like my girls?" he asked.

"Oh no, Father," Abby said, her face falling. "You know what the officer said. You simply must ask permission before you involve people in your experiments."

And the smile slid off his face, just like that. "Must I?" he asked. "Must I ask before I change the world for the better? Before I use my genius to improve the lives of every man, woman, and child?" He glowered at them, at both of them. "I thought I'd impressed upon you the importance of my work."

Martha felt her stomach shiver inside her, quailing in a way it hadn't since Father had had that accident with the acid. "You have, Father," she said.

Next to her, Abby drew herself up to her full height, and her fingers fisted in her skirts. "But that doesn't mean you can just do whatever you like, all willy-nilly!"

And ah, that was true. Martha swallowed hard and saw the world with the same crystal clarity she had when she'd first tasted toffee and strychnine on her tongue. "She's right, Father," she said, and she forced the words out around the lump in her throat. "It's too mean, what you did. The children would have been hurt. And what a fine way to use strychnine that would have been! You've always taught us that poison is such a wondrous tool, haven't you? A good dose of strychnine should only be used for the greater good."

"The greater good!" he scoffed. "What would a young girl like you know of the greater good? I tell you, my experiments will show the world true greatness!"

Martha's lips pressed together in a long, thin line, and next to her, Abby was equally stonefaced.

He paused and looked at them both. "How many children ate the candy?" he asked.

Martha didn't say a thing, but she could see that Abby's eyes had gone quietly mulish.

He continued to stare at them, that keen gaze darting from face to face, and then he turned on his heel and marched into the kitchen. A moment later, he said something that was distinctly un-Christian. When he pushed the door back open with a bang, his expression was stormy. "Not a one! How dare the two of you interfere like this! With my work? With science?"

That fear in Martha, that unpleasant sour jelly feeling in her stomach, seemed to dissipate then, fuel for something much stronger. It was the anger inside her that she saw reflected in her sister's eyes that made her open her mouth to argue. "You had no right! You had no right to poison our food or try to hurt the children! You had no right to do any of that!"

"I am your father, and a respected doctor in this town!" he shouted. "I had every right! I thought you understood that!"

Over the years, Martha had come to understand more and more and more. She'd had Abby's keen eyes and fiery heart to thank for that. She'd had the fascinating letters sent to them by their dear brother, away at school, and the books that she'd sneaked from her father's office. She understood the power of a poison, and the power of a poisoner. And each day, she went to church and sang hymns and learned a poisoner's responsibility as well.

"I understand perfectly well, Father," she said, and she heard Abby's quiet gasp at the sheer raw nerve underlying her voice. "You used our holiday celebration to play your little experiments, and you didn't care who it'd hurt. That's not Christian charity. That's -- that's just selfishness!"

"I see," he said. And Lord above, maybe he did. His eyes were certainly wide enough. "I see."

Martha could see by the look in her father's eyes, all darkness and anger and bitter disappointment, that they'd failed his test. But there was something inside her that felt unnaturally bright. Like something, some intrinsic part of her soul, had finally slotted into place. She felt like she'd touched something higher than her father could reach, and softer than he could imagine. She felt the same way she did when she and Abby went down to the hospital to sit with the injured and ailing, or like she had that time that they'd taken food to sweet old Miss Marjorie when she'd been aching too much to teach.

Martha reached down to take Abby's hand, and she felt the heat of it, the life. She knew in her heart that there had been two tests that day administered by two very different fathers. And of the two, she and Abby had passed the important one.

* * *

Martha found herself contemplating that day many years later, the morning their father was lowered into the ground. She'd thought that on a day like today, she only would have remembered the good memories. The way her father had healed so many and provided so many patients with a new lease on life. The way he carried her up the stairs to her room the day she fell and turned her ankle. The way he'd been so smart, so kind, and so indelibly interesting. She thought her heart would be overfull with all the sweetness that her father had left them with.

Instead she found herself wandering their house and feeling memories in the walls like bumps in the wallpaper. Some of them were nice. She remembered this scorch mark here, put there when their father had made such a bang for Brother's birthday. She remembered the way he'd filled the lowest shelf of this bookshelf full of books just for her. But some of them, some of them were rows and resentments and the drip-drip-drip of seasons full of strychnine.

It was inevitable that she'd end up in the laboratory, she knew. She'd spent so many happy hours here as a child, and so many sour ones. He still had a cabinet filled with rows and rows of tiny little bottles. Now, though, now Martha was old enough to read the labels all on her own.

She opened the cabinet with hands that shook, and she wondered. Should they clean this old workroom out? Or should they leave it, a testament to their father's mad genius? Her fingertips ghosted over dusty glass jars. It felt like they contained memories, in a way. She could remember what her father had looked like, holding these jars close like a loved one, and his warped reflection in the glass. Each one was filled with a different poison, and like her father had always told her, poison was just a tool. 'A poisoner can be sweet or cruel, but poison is ever just a simple tool,' she'd said to herself, singsong, as she'd skipped down the stairs.

Father had been sweet and cruel, and it was the vagueness of her own feelings that plagued her. She'd cried with everyone else as they'd sung hymns in the churchyard, but now that all was said and done with, she felt queerly empty inside. She had good memories and bad swirling inside her, like creeping poison in her veins, but it was like she'd become as immune to it as strychnine and arsenic and all the rest. It was a dull burning, faraway and mysterious, and she had no more tears to cry.

But her hands still trembled without her permission, and they were still slippery with sweat. It shouldn't have been a surprise when one of the bottles slipped from her fingers, but it was, it was. The tinkle of broken glass shook her from her reverie, and she looked down at the mess on her father's floor. That wouldn't do. That wouldn't do at all. There were children in the house now, young and boisterous and eager to explore the world, and it wasn't safe to have a thing like that out where they could find it.

She gathered it all up in her handkerchief, perhaps a bit too carelessly, and went to throw it in the bin. But she really had been careless, hadn't she? Because there was a prick and a shock and she realized, as her white handkerchief blossomed red, that she'd cut herself on the glass.

Well, that was even easier, wasn't it? She dropped the whole mess into the bin, handkerchief and all, and called it a loss. There were other bottles. There were other handkerchiefs. She put her thumb to her mouth to wipe away the blood, and made a soft sound in the back of her throat when she tasted the bitter sting of strychnine.

In a daze, she sat down in her father's chair, thumb still dangling between her teeth. She didn't stand up again for a long, long time. And when she finally left, a minute or forever had passed, she wasn't sure which. She locked the door behind her, locking away the poisons and the experiments and her father, all away from the precocious eyes of little boys. As she walked away, her eyes stung.

* * *

"Goodness, Martha dear! Whoever knew that children could be so exhausting?" Abby asked as she leaned back against the kitchen door.

Martha smiled even as she pulled the chicken from the oven. "Our mother did, dear," she said. And yet she'd been so very patient with the three of them! Really, it was only the least she and Abby could do to repay the favor now that they had three little ones of their own. Neither of them had ever really expected to have children; they'd chosen a life together instead, seeing to the community instead of any one man. But then their dear Brother had died, and instead of having three nephews to babysit, the two of them had three nephews to raise.

And really, "exhausting" wasn't the half of it. The three of them were so different, such darling little souls, and all three seemed to be running in three different directions at all times. Teddy was so bright and inquisitive, and Mortimer, their little foundling, was growing up to be such a clever boy. And then there was Jonathan.

"Abby, my dear..." she said, and pursed her lips. "Do you think that Jonathan might be feeling a little troubled after Brother's passing?"

Abby's face did something sort of complicated as she took the greens from the stove. "Perhaps, Martha. But he always was a little different, even before... Well, you know."

"Yes..." Martha said. Then she smiled a little thinly. "It does take all kinds, though, doesn't it?"

"Yes," Abby agreed, and her own smile seemed a bit strained around the edges as well. "It does."

Abby pushed the door open for her, then, and Martha gratefully took the help. The dishes were so large now that the boys were getting to that age. It really was such a pity that Mortimer's mother had needed to leave them.

"Boys!" Martha called, and set the chicken on the table. "Dinner!"

And really, there was no word that could summon a trio of young boys faster. In an instant, all three of them were crowded around the table. There was Teddy with those glasses that made him look even more bookish than he was, and Mortimer with his hands in his pockets like he was hiding something. But that was just his way, she'd learned. He just always looked like he'd learned a secret. Jonathan, though... Jonathan was smiling.

Her own smile dipped just a little as she met his. "You look happy today, dear," she said.

"Very happy," he said, and my, he looked so much like his grandfather when he smiled like that. "I found something nice today."

"Really?" Mortimer asked, and his lip rose just slightly. "Not another snake, is it?"

"Oh no, brother," Jonathan said. "Much better than that."

Martha smiled a little more and brushed out her dress as she sat down. "Well, what was it, Jonathan dear?" she asked.

Jonathan's smile spread and spread, plague-like. "It's a secret."

"Oh, don't be like that, Jonathan!" Teddy cried. "Tell us!"

"Now, Teddy," she said. "It's all right to let your brother keep some secrets." They were getting to the age where those secrets would start to feel so important, and it was good for children to feel like they could have a little something of their own. She paused. "Dears, have you seen the salt?"

Abby didn't like salt much, so Martha was always careful to salt to her own taste after they'd all been served. Today, though, she didn't seem to see it on the table...

"It's right here, auntie," Jonathan said, and slid it along the table to her. Odd. She hadn't noticed it down there.

But Abby was joining them now, with a lovely bowl of simmered greens, so it was time to say grace and eat.

"Heavenly Father," she said, with her eyes pointedly closed. The boys did like to cheat, but that was the age. "Please bless this food to our bodies--" She heard a small snicker, and her lips turned down. "And we thank you for all that you have given us. Amen."

Really, the only prayers those boys could sit through were the short ones. Heaven knows what the parson must think of them. She opened her eyes again and gave them all a severe sort of look. All three looked back with wide-eyed innocence, though, and she sighed. She could never stay upset with eyes like that.

She tapped a bit of salt onto her food, and then took a bite. And that -- oh! It was as flavor as old and nostalgic as their mother's old elderberry wine. "Jonathan! Did you put something in this salt?" she asked.

Across the table, Abby blinked at her. "Something in the salt, dear?"

"Yes, dear," Martha answered. And everything that had been hazy quite suddenly cleared. "Something from Father's laboratory."

Abby looked puzzled for a moment, her soft features creased with the effort of it, and then they smoothed out in horrified comprehension. "Not one of Father's poisons!" she gasped.

Mortimer dropped his fork. "Poison?" he squeaked.

Jonathan's eyes had gone dark and ugly, much the same way they had at his father's funeral. "Yes, poison. But you weren't supposed to taste it, Aunt Martha."

Not taste it! Like Martha hadn't been trained to taste strychnine since before the lot of them were born! "Salt won't hide the taste of strychnine, Jonathan," she said severely. "And you know you're not supposed to go in your grandfather's laboratory. It's dangerous in there."

"Poison," Mortimer said faintly.

Teddy blinked at her owlishly behind his glasses. "What's strychnine?" he asked.

Martha wrinkled her nose and took a sip of her wine to banish the bitterness. "It's a very deadly poison, dear," she said. "And it's very, very naughty to put into the salt shaker."

Abby frowned. "Yes, it is. I'm afraid we'll have to punish you, Jonathan." She didn't look any happier than Martha was about it.

"I'm afraid so," Martha agreed with a sigh. "You'll just have to go straight up to bed and think about why we don't touch things that don't belong to us, Jonathan."

Jonathan's glare went downright murderous. "Aren't you angry?" he asked. "Or scared?"

Mortimer was still just looking down at his plate with round, round eyes. "Poison..."

Abby's mouth twisted. "You'll have to wake up much earlier to surprise us, dear," she said.

"Indeed. It's not like we've never had strychnine before," Martha said. "At our age, you've tried lots of things."

"Like what?" Teddy asked.

"Later, dear," Abby said, and she patted his hand. "Jonathan, I think you'd better go on up."

Jonathan rose from his chair, the movement jerky, and he didn't bother to push it back in. Worse still, when he went into his room, he slammed the door hard enough to make their grandfather's old clock chime.

Martha sighed. Boys that age really were such a handful.

Mortimer looked up at her then, and mercy, his eyes would start watering soon if they stayed so wide. "Jonathan poisoned our food!" he said, and his voice had gone a bit strangled.

"Oh no, dear," Martha said. "Just the salt. The chicken should be fine. Eat up."

Young boys needed to grow up big and strong, after all.

* * *

The boys had been so very difficult to raise, it was true, but in the end Martha was sure that it'd been more than worth the effort. They'd been so sweet to her and Abby in their old age, and it would have been very lonely without them. She thought about the way that Mother and Father and Brother had all died so young. They'd never needed to grow old and lonely, and maybe in some ways that had been a blessing. She and Abby never would have left them, of course, but if she'd learned one thing in her life, it was that one never could take family for granted.

She'd felt the loss of them with a pang in her heart when Mr. Midgely had shown up on their doorstep, and as she and Abby had watched decades of pain and solitude drop away from his face to leave just a sort of ethereal peace, she'd realized just how lucky the two of them were, to have nephews to love. Teddy was staying with them and would as long as they were alive; he needed them every bit as much as they needed him. And Mortimer, he'd been coming around so much more often since that pretty Elaine girl had moved in across the street! The two of them had been so very, very lucky to raise two boys as good as them. Otherwise they might have ended up like poor Mr. Midgely.

She thought about that, the pain of living a life without ties. Of having only memories to keep you warm at night. Of how very, very happy Mr. Midgely had looked when they'd laid his old bones to rest. Abby had found their grandmother's old crystal decanter, and Martha remembered their mother's elderberry wine recipe herself. She tied on an apron that Mortimer had given her as a clumsy birthday present back when he'd still been so sweet and so young, and she listened to Teddy regaling Abby with one of his stories as she kept him occupied. She thought of her family, old and new and dear all the same, as she fetched her father's poisons.

It took a little experimentation to find the right combination. It always did with a new recipe. But the bitterness of the strychnine was an old friend in her mouth, and the nuttiness of the cyanide complemented the wine nicely. It wasn't hard to create something lovely and appetizing and altogether hers, not nearly as hard as it should have been. A teaspoon of arsenic, half a teaspoon of strychnine, and just a pinch of cyanide. It was potent enough that even her heart beat a little faster when she tasted it, and delicious enough that she felt comfortable serving it to the most distinguished guest.

This, this was what poison was made for. It was a tool, such a sweet tool, and she'd use it to save those who needed help more than anyone else. Death could be painful, but it could also be kind. And she'd make it the sweetest, kindest death that the good Lord could offer.

"Abby dear," she called out to the sitting room. "I think I've got it."

She heard Abby making her excuses to Teddy, who accepted them as gregariously as he did anything else, and she came rushing into the kitchen. "You have?" she asked.

"Yes, I think it's just right now," she said. "Have a sip and see. But a very small sip, dearest. You know how strychnine gives you cramps."

"Of course, dear," Abby said, and her eyes were alight as she took a taste. "My word! You've outdone yourself, Martha! That is truly delicious."

Martha smiled, and she felt it creep up the side of her face. "Oh, I'm so glad you think so, Abby. I do think so highly of your opinion," she said.

"I know, Martha," Abby said, and her eyes sparkled with years' worth of shared secrets and inside jokes. "And I think very highly of your cooking."

And Martha, she knew the knowledge had come after long years of failure and success, of pain and victory, of study and experimentation. It felt like something coming together, then, something that had been a long time coming. Like maybe, maybe the two of them had just found their purpose and a purpose for everything that had brought them to this point.

It felt like a mercy.